Car reliability data are released annually by Consumer Reports, the independent product-testing organization, which surveys 1.3 million car owners each spring. Then, its experts analyze the data to calculate each specific model's reliability, taking into account any changes in the model's design.
While looking at the overall reliability ratings for the brand you are considering offers some guidance, reliability can vary from one model to another within the same brand. For example, in the recently released 2011 Annual Auto Survey, Ford had the biggest drop of all the car brands, down 10 spots from last year to 20th place. This is a big change because in recent years, its quality has rivaled the Japanese brands, which have led the reliability ratings for several decades. But Ford's decline in this year's survey was largely due to the redesigned Explorer and Focus models as well as the new Fiesta. Remaining models continued to have strong reliability.
Looking at the data for the specific car models also provides specifics of the problems in the 17 areas the survey assesses. Being aware of whether the issues are associated with squeaks and rattles, engine problems or the car's electronics will help you understand the severity of the problems reported and perhaps sway you toward or away from purchasing that particular car. While a new car will have most of the problems covered under warranty, there is still the time and other hassles associated with repeated repair visits -- such as being without your car.
If you are shopping for a used car, reliability ratings are even more useful since you are more likely to find yourself faced with a repair that is not covered under warranty. Looking at the reliability ratings for the specific model year and those slightly older and slightly newer also can be enlightening. It's quite possible to see reliability ratings that vary widely for the same car between model years. Use that data to make a decision to buy a different model year. If you buy one model year newer, it may cost you a bit more, but paying out-of-pocket for repairs on the same car in a less reliable model year could certainly be higher.
Ask the adviserIf you have a car question, email it to us at Driving for Dollars. Read more Driving for Dollars columns and Bankrate auto stories. Follow her on Facebook here or on Twitter @SheDrives.